Originally Published 2011-12-13 00:00:00 Published on Dec 13, 2011
Chemical-Biological and Radiological (CBR) threats are being increasingly perceived as the new face of terrorism. The possibility of non-state actors employing non-conventional weapons using CBR materials.
CBR Threats: New Face of Terrorism
Chemical-Biological and Radiological (CBR) threats are being increasingly perceived as the new face of terrorism. The possibility of non-state actors employing non-conventional weapons using CBR materials to carry out terrorist attacks is today high on the list of security agencies world wide. Quick analyses of the documented worldwide terror incidents involving CBR materials can help in identifying trends and prospects of such threats coming closer to reality. A chemical attack involves the spreading of toxic chemicals through nerve agents like Sarin or choking agents like Chlorine and Phosgene. Depending on the degree of toxicity, concentration of chemical, route and duration of exposure, the danger to human health can vary from choking and eye irritation to death. This article relies on incident records obtained from the open source databases such as the World Wide Incident Tracking System of the US' National Counterterrorism Centre and RAND database of Worldwide Terror incidents. The first striking aspect is the disproportionately high number of chemical terror incidents among the documented CBR tri-axis. The chemical threats occupy 75 per cent of the incident spectrum and biological about 25 per cent. Radiological incidents are negligible in number. The chemical threat incidents vary from crude methods like poisoning to sophisticated methods involving meticulously crafted chemical laced letters. In February 1978, a Palestinian group called the Arab Revolutionary Army claimed to have injected exported Israel oranges with Mercury. Oranges spiked with Mercury were later found in Holland, West Germany, Belgium and London. In 1979 in Sweden, Zaire's Ambassador Mobutu Dongo Yema and brother of Zaire President Mobutu Sese Seko was killed from suspected chemical agent poisoning. In March 1995, in one of the widely quoted CBR attacks, the Tokyo subway system was targeted in a coordinated attack with the dangerous nerve gas Sarin, released from packages on board brought by an extremist Buddhist sect called Aum Shinri Kyo killing twelve people and injuring over 5000. This attack had all the likely variables of a potential CBR attack. The attack was carried out by an extremist group with an overarching ideology and incredible expertise in both biological and chemical weapons. They had conducted experimental trials prior to the actual attack. The most important aspect of the attack was the use of Category A chemical agent like Sarin in an enclosed area with an intention to maximize the effect. In fact, this incident became a reference point for governments to create an effective response to such threats. Another series of incidents in New Zealand in 2002 and 2003 involved the US embassy, Australian and British High Commission being targeted with cyanide laced letters. Embassies and Newspaper Offices have been the target of some of these attacks, suggesting some degree of symbolism in the incident. Reportedly, injected Cyanide was also used by militants to kill a woman suspected to be working as an informer in Kashmir in India. This is one of the rare documented incidents of chemical terror in India. In 2003, Ricin-laced letters addressed to the Department of Transportation, and to the White House were intercepted at mail sorting facilities. The letters were traced back to the same sender and complained about some pending trucking regulations. The interesting point here is that the White House did not make the incident public for three months because it "posed no public health risk." If lessons were to be drawn from the Sarin incident, given the lack of knowledge of Sarin related symptoms, the first responders to the Sarin incident were at a loss to suggest remedial measures. But televised publicity of the incident and its symptoms reportedly caught the eye of a Professor who had previous experience in dealing with Sarin symptoms and immediately had directions faxed to the relevant hospitals. This shows that different responses to CBR incidents may have different effects, whereas in the first case the lack of publicity helped in preventing panic and in the second case it helped in timely response. The incident data also indicates few attempts to poison the water supply to the cities (2002 in Columbia and 2003 in Italy), however failing to achieve fatalities. Atleast ten incidents involving Vehicle Borne Improvised Explosive Devices (VBIED) carrying Chlorine gas containers were perpetrated in Iraq in 2007 killing more than 100 people. This raises valid questions on the trend of imitation within a limited geographic locality, facilitated by the ease of acquisition of the agent, in this case Chlorine gas. Thus areas with high material volume of chemicals and precedent of a CBR attack could be potentially prone to imitation attacks. One could also go so far as to suggest that only the first attack would require the ingenuity that is often perceived as a mandatory precursor to CBR attacks. A biological attack is the intentional release of a pathogen (disease causing agent) or biotoxin (poisonous substance produced by living organism) against humans, plants or animals. An attack can be use to cause death, fear, societal disruption and economic damage. Agents are categorized into high threat (Category A-easy dissemination and high mortality) like Anthrax and Plague and Lower threat agents (Category B-moderately easy to disseminate, moderate mortality) like Cholera and Ricin. An overwhelming number of biological attacks have been attempted against news organisations (Daily Jang, Pakistan; ABC News, US; American Media Inc, US). Anthrax spores have clearly been the favourite among the agents employed. Targets have also included the famous incident where the US senate majority leader Tom Daschle was sent a letter with Anthrax spores. A South African government facility in Pretoria came under suspected Anthrax attack in 2004. The US Department of Defence was also the target of a suspected anthrax mail in 2005. Another sample was found in the air filter of an offsite mail facility that serves the US Supreme Court. Theoretically, ventilation systems have been established as vulnerable areas because of excellent dispersal and potential uniform spread, and this incident brings the threat into the realm of practicality. Investigations into the Anthrax attacks were carried out by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) under the auspices of the US Department of Justice. This was one of the most extensive investigations carried out by the FBI ning six continents and about 10,000 witnesses. Most importantly it had a multidisciplinary framework with two investigative fronts of traditional and scientific with outputs from each feeding into the other. It led to the evolution of the field of microbial forensics which involved the innovative application of biological and chemical analysis. This shows how investigations into any CBR incident may need to have a broad interdisciplinary framework and the traditional institutions alone may not suffice. The sensitivity and relatively recent advancement of nuclear technology has ensured that institutional capability for large scale nuclear threats remains most advanced among the three. A radiological threat is a smaller scale threat vis-à-vis a nuclear one. A radiological attack is perpetrated using a radiological agent. This may be perpetrated with the use of a radiological dispersal device (RDD) otherwise known as a dirty bomb. This is not a nuclear bomb as the effect is geographically limited to dispersal area. Radioactive material used could be a Gamma emitter like Cobalt 60, Cesium-137 or Iridium-192. Alpha emitter like Plutonium 238, not to be confused with weapons grade Pu 239. Beta emitters like Stontium are also common radioactive materials used in society but are less harmful because of its comparatively lower penetration range. There are no records of radiological incidents. The caveat here is that any database on such incidents cannot be said to be comprehensive given the nature and difficulty in attribution of such an incident and secondly, the lack of a national framework on incident reporting which these databases can draw from. However this does help give a kaleidoscopic overview of the threats emerging from CBR materials. It is believed that the currently available quantitative evidence of the CBR threat to Indian security is inadequate to get a real perception of the threat and therefore there is a need to assess the vulnerability and threat level in the Indian context to enhance our understanding of this 'new face of terrorism'. Akhilesh B Variar is Research Assistant, ORF
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